The Built Environment
Liverpool University/Pavilion, £9.95
Emily Hasler’s The Built Environment blurs the boundaries between the artificial and the natural. We can stumble on a brick structure and find it as inevitable as a meandering stream. A pond can be a lively ruin. Buildings are not objects simply plonked onto nature’s blank canvas. Hasler encourages the reader to see ‘building’ as more of a verb than a noun, the process through which we fashion an environment that encompasses the whole world.
This collection gathers and processes details. Like “the folding machine” of its opening poem (On Headed Paper), it is intricate, precise and fractal: a machine made of paper is hardly sterile, because it is made of dead biological matter. In Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, the speaker flows into and out of the marble:
———-tightening the tiny gimbals in each
Pressing up against the marble with our fingers lets us experience the joy of Bernini’s extraordinarily liquid and lifelike statuary. Artefacts and nature take on one another’s characteristics at the slippery margin that usually divides the two. The more the speaker presses on the cold marble, the more conscious they become of the infinitesimal machinery that makes them lively and responsive. The fingertips are “foliated”, deep and layered like a book or a leaf on a tree. We push into this infinite layering, even as we come up against what seems to be an immutable boundary, a “not us”.
Another ekphrastic poem, New Battersea Bridge Nocturne, has an epigraph by James McNeill Whistler: the artist states that using the word ‘nocturne’ let him “[divest] the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it.” The poem has three sections, subtitled ‘Blue and Gold’, ‘Blue and Silver’ and ‘Black and Gold’. Each section builds a picture of the environment around the bridge using delicate assonance and consonance, with the sounds suggested by letters in the section titles. For example, the words in ‘Blue and Silver’ build a sonic pattern out of ‘b’ and ‘v’. The materials of this linguistic play shifts, with more than one pattern in play at once: like Whistler, Hasler resists attachment to a single external organising principle.
The word “structural” appears seven times in Building, always preceded by a different adverb, for example “essentially”, “grossly” and “permanently”. On these foundations, Hasler builds a shimmering, crystalline castle (like the “castles in the sky” of the poem), through which other words are refracted and destabilised. The reader might look twice at “smudgy”, “pretty” and even “balcony” and “sky”: the linguistic ecosystem of the poem presses adjectives into virtual adverbs, nouns into virtual adjectives. To an ecological eye attuned to a fuzzy world, the sky is sky-y, balconies balcony-y, leaving the reader (to borrow from Hasler’s Where the Swimming Pool Was) “hammocky between two thoughts”.
Deep linguistic exploration also serves as an ecological technique in Giles Goodland’s The Masses. All but one poem of the collection is devoted to insects. “Masses” is a word that, when applied to a human population, suggests homogeneity. An environmental factoid might weigh the global biomass of insects against that of humans. Goodland politicises these associations of the word “masses” by showing insect species to be endlessly heterogeneous and surprising. His highly innovative language is a biosphere calibrated to the finest distinctions.
The collection is divided into three sections. The first and last, ‘Vertebrates’ and ‘Stone’, comprise one poem each. The mass of the book is the middle section, ‘Invertebrates’. The section titles appear only in the table of contents, not the body of the book. This is a hint that the reader might need to dispense with the boundaries between categories in and beyond the tree of life.
The poems rapidly mutate puns. Bot is ostensibly about the botfly, which sheep avoid inhaling by “throbbing their noses to the ground”. This prose poem culminates with hackers “[hiding] themselves, their faces” from “searchbots” and “the backdoor worm”. The reference of the word “bot” has moved imperceptibly from insect to web program. In Ant, “Saint-Just”, a political leader in the French Revolution, pupates into the anagram “Ant is just”. The language is generative and austere by turns: “If we reduce want we get ant. Reduce poverty to get poetry.” Words lose letters like ants losing legs. Ants, with their workers and queens, do not escape the violent magnifying glass of human politics.
In Ant, ants “ground the earth to a stop/ and form the lettered multitude”. The word “form” could be a repressed pun on formication, the sensation of insects crawling over the skin. This ghostly pun is an example of a kind of uncanny, skin-crawling experience that this book elicits. Is the association there? This question is just one detached feeler in a terrifying chain reaction of relatedness. What if my human life is inextricably entwined with the fate of insects? Ants have “serif legs”, to complement the full stop they grind the earth to. The colony swims before the reader’s eyes. This is wordplay as ecological attitude.
The final poem, Paper Shale, complicates the categorizing game of animal, vegetable, mineral. Like the first poem, which sifts through a compost bin, it focuses on the environment as much as the insects in it. Bedrock is “a massbook, written under seapressure” and “scripture”. Masses can overwhelm people, but they can also provoke a sense of religious awe.
These linguistic games can seem cloying: neologisms like “metaforknife”, “remandible” and “transtantric” can fatigue the reader. But this reaction brings the challenge into focus: learning to care about what is unique about each species (each unfamiliar word), to resist the flattened affect that pronounces “masses”, could be a way to be ecological. One day, you might have to eat insects. Poetry, across the spectrum, could help us sort through our disgust responses.
Jorie Graham’s Fast zooms between human mortality and the end of the world at speed. The second and third sentences of Ashes, the opening poem, are: “Asked the plants to give me my small identity. No, the planets.” The movement from personal trauma to global catastrophe is subtle and mysterious in these poems, as deft and provisional as adding the letter ‘e’ to the word “plants”.
Time moves fast in this collection, which conjures a past and present out of a future. The perspective is both steely-eyed and nostalgic, informed by the lived experience of a parent with dementia: “I remember the earth.” Graham uses experimental typography to dilate the speed of her long lines. For example, in Deep Water Trawling some paragraphs have claustrophobic leading and lines spanning the full width of the page. These alternate with paragraphs that have double-spaced but shorter lines. The leading and line lengths work in opposing directions: in a new paragraph the eye may reach the end of the line faster, but spend more time travelling between lines, and vice versa. The effect is dizzying, and compounded by koan-like temporal constructions in the text, like “The end of the world had already occurred.”
At other times, typographical arrows replace spaces between the words, urging and hobbling speed at the same time: spaces would make it easier to distinguish and scan the words. Time’s arrow serves as a punctuation point.
A similar tension is present in the frequent repetition in the poems. The title poem contains “abhor labor”, a partial anagram, “talk—talk—”, and “invent, inspire, infil-/ trate, instill”. In other poems it is suffixes, not prefixes that are repeated. Each strain of repetition alone might be obsessive, but each is either cancelled out or live-revised away in the on-rush. The whole experience is sticky and frictionless, reminiscent of an addicted mind flitting across a web of dopamine hits, struggling at a pleasure it can scarcely remember.
Graham sees that yearning for a more authentic human connection than was possible in the past does not constitute a renunciation of always-online life. Rather, these rose-tinted Google Glasses are the psychological filter that sustains this amnesiac existence. In Fast, she shows that living fast cannot be separated from fasting (hunger): starvation for “real” human contact. In this poem, conversations with chatbots online are opportunities to talk to our future (in)human selves: “Will we survive I ask the bot.” It is difficult to tell who is and who is not a bot, or what level of consciousness might constitute survival. Graham writes convincingly about the foreclosed future present we find ourselves in.
The book ends with Mother’s Hands Drawing Me, a poem in which the speaker is drawn to relive the death of her mother. The lines are short and right-justified with a ragged left edge, a subversion of typographical convention that registers a desperate attempt to reverse time: “mother not wanting to/ die”. The mother does die, “in the fetid shadow-/ world—geotrauma—trans-/ natural”. The yoking of the personal to the planetary in “geotrauma” is the desperate mapping of individual fates onto a planetary reference point that is also receding out of view. When the planet is dying from unnatural causes, death itself is denatured.
Chris Kerr is from London and lives in Edinburgh. His first poetry pamphlet collection, Citidyll, was published earlier this year by Broken Sleep Books.
Read more reviews in Magma 72:
- Zoë Brigley reviews Tishani Doshi, Deborah Alma and Polly Atkin
- Maryam Hessavi reviews Stephen Sawyer, Mircea Dinescu and Tracy K. Smith
- Matt Merritt reviews Stav Poleg, Bobby Parker and an entertainment for W.S. Graham
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